Bees in winter

February 1, 2011

The February plate from my dinner service (with text from John Clare’s Shepherds Calendar) reminds us to hope to see a few drowsy bees on fine February days.

The accuracy of John Clare’s observations of nature reminds me of Vita Sackville-West’s great poem The Land, and her intimate knowledge of her particular bit of England:

In February, if the days be clear,

The waking bee, still drowsy on the wing,

Will guess the opening of another year

And blunder out to seek another spring.

I wrote last month about my project for the year, a series of Books of Hours or contemporary illuminated manuscripts; I’ve begun with a large-scale book called Singing the Year, with text from The Land celebrating the cycle of the seasons and their ‘recurrent patterns on a scroll unwinding’.

The February page here shows a clear frosty starlit night in recognition of the pleasures of the season, rather than sleepy bees, but the poem also warns us:

Forget not bees in winter, though they sleep,

For winter’s big with summer in her womb.

So I’ve been making a few spells for the bees, while they sleep, in the hope that they will resume their summer vigour for another year:

Blessing the bees in winter is a very ancient tradition:

I found the text for Skep in the Greek Anthology; it’s by Diodoras Zonas, in a translation by Alistair Elliot. I particularly like the invocation to the bees themselves, encouraging them while simultaneously discreetly removing their stores. The text is lettered on a large sheet of creamy-white handmade paper, with a pen I cut from a piece of Thames driftwood, and an ordinary wooden peg.

Thrive adapts a text by Apollinides (from a translation by Peter Whigham in the Greek Anthology) in a paper construction made with different handmade papers reflecting the layered cells in the hive. The lettering is set to evoke the movement of the bees among the cells, regular, orderly but individual, singing. This time the text avoids mentioning the inevitable theft and confines itself to powerful words of blessing and encouragement. Amen to that.

Returning to the theme of the pleasures of the season – what Burns refers to in his line:

And O for the joys of a long winter night

– February is also of course the perfect moment for one of the great celebrations of the year, the feast of St Valentine, ‘the start of true spring’. Love is the theme of much of my work:

This group of pots includes a large celebratory wine jug, based on the inscription (by Lorenzo di Medici):

Viva Baccho, e viv’ Amore

– roughly: Long live Bacchus, and long live love! Amen also to that.

These two wine jugs both celebrate love. On the left, John Clare’s

Tis womans love makes earth divine

and on the right, the encouraging proposition from Thomas Shadwell:

Come let us agree there are pleasures divine

In wine and in love, in love and in wine.

And behind them, Burns’ blessing on a large dish:

Thine be ilka Joy and Treasure,

Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure.

Night is a One Elephant book made from a single sheet of handmade paper (70cm x 50cm), torn and folded into a sequence of pages, with a deeply sexy text from Spenser’s Epithalamion:

The text is set onto the blank sheet of paper, and then painted over, to give that feathery, floating effect. After painting and folding, but before tearing, the sheet of paper looked like this:

These books can be shown like this, framed on the wall, or folded as books, so that they can be read and handled, turning the book as the text follows the cycle of the pages.

Another of my One Elephant books very appropriate for the time of year is Amo Ergo Sum. Kathleen Raine’s profound and simple poem was the starting point for this book, where the text flows outward from a steady, glowing core, source of everything good, all-powerful, wholly benign:

The text here is lettered over the painting; before the lettering, it looked like this:

And once lettered, but before tearing, like this (you can see the sequence of the pages flowing out with the text from the core):

And once folded and torn, like this:

This beautiful text was also the inspiration for one of my new River Vessels:

This tall bowl is full of midnight blue, with the text lettered inside and out:

Because I love, there is a river flowing all night long.

Most of the work on this page is for sale, prices ranging from £75 for the Womans love wine jug to £500 for Skep. My One Elephant books are usually £300 – £400 each, with small elephants about £150 each, including individual slipcase. Every piece is a one-off, unique and original signed artwork. To find out more about any of my work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

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